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“The mind-set of the people has changed” in New York, says Chintan Pandya, the chef of Dhamaka, one of the hardest reservations in Manhattan. He thinks his rustic Indian restaurant would not have been the smash hit it’s become before the pandemic. These days, diners want something they can relate to, not “a 12-inch plate with a 1-inch piece of food.”
Three years after I last ate in New York, I returned to find answers to some frequent reader questions — where to go before a show, what’s cooking in Brooklyn, ideas for brunch — with the aim of focusing on restaurants, old or new, that deliver value and what Pandya calls “real food.”
Here are five places I can’t wait to revisit.
Ardesia Wine Bar
The name translates to “slate” in Italian, and sure enough, the outsize chalkboard listing wines and the surface of the floor both feature the fine-grained rock. But owner Mandy Oser says she had other reasons for calling her Hell’s Kitchen wine bar Ardesia. She liked the way the word rolled off the tongue and figured it left room for evolution.
The small-plates menu highlights “things you crave when you’re having a drink,” says Oser, who opened the restaurant in 2009. So there are soft pretzels, baked in house, and a fabulous banh mi: roast duck and duck liver mousse inside a slender sandwich slathered with sriracha aioli and crunchy with pickled carrots. The good taste extends to the pedigree of the bread, from Sullivan Street Bakery, and the fistful of housemade fingerling potato chips. Succulent lamb skewers served with labneh and an heirloom tomato salad, lively with basil and a sherry vinaigrette, made an ideal light dinner before a recent performance of “Into the Woods,” and kudos to the mindful server who advised us on wine pairings (a Blauer Spätburgunder, or pinot noir, from Germany) and had us inspect a salad plate before she retrieved it. “Oh, you left a tomato!”
Housed on the ground floor of an apartment building, the bar and dining area are modern and warm. The wine program combines classics with selections from lesser-known wine areas; think Burgundy from France and Spourtiko, a white wine from Cyprus. Best of all, the restaurant is all-purpose. Ardesia allows you to enjoy a leisurely three-course meal or a quick bite and a glass of wine, hold any discussion of “how the volcanic soil” informs what’s in your glass, jokes the owner.
510 W. 52nd St. 212-247-9191. ardesia-ny.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Snacks and small plates $6 to $20.
Here’s where you want to land for brunch: a corner restaurant in Chelsea with a choice of indoor or outdoor seating, streams of light, pleasant servers in gingham blue shirts and the kind of American menu that takes into account that some people like to rise and shine for chicken liver mousse or chilled Maine lobster instead of eggs and beignets.
The dining room has so many plants, you feel as if you’re eating alfresco. A painting of a tractor underscores a farm-to-table philosophy, and isn’t it nice to see a band of mirrors at eye level, so everyone gets a view? A little list of specials speaks to the season. A scorching Saturday in late summer was tamed by watermelon salad with snow-white crumbles of feta cheese, breezy mint and a little trumpet blast of chiles — fire and ice in every forkful.
The standing list is nice, too. Go for the egg sandwich served with skin-on, chive-freckled potatoes, a tender Dutch baby gilded with juicy peaches or the strapping huevos rancheros perked up with pickled jalapeños.
156 10th Ave. 212-924-4440. cookshopny.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Brunch dishes $12 to $25.
The server beams as she sets a pan of steaming gurda kapoora on our table. “Our most adventurous dish,” she says of the chopped lamb kidneys and testicles in a fire-colored sauce made from trotters, hits of ginger and garlic, and a swarm of warm spices. Companions and I mop up the rustic pleasure, sometimes made with goat, with pao, the pillowy rolls introduced to Goa by the Portuguese. If there’s a meal that best sums up this hot spot in the sprawling Essex Market, gurda kapoora is it.
Chef Chintan Pandya uses the Hindi word dhamaka — “explosion or blast, in the party sense,” he says — to capture his intentions in the indoor/outdoor restaurant that drew praise and crowds the moment it launched on Valentine’s Day 2021. Before coming to the United States in 2013, the Mumbai native traveled around India collecting recipes from home cooks in villages, figuring his taste memories were for personal consumption rather than future restaurant menus.
Happily, Dhamaka’s customers are the beneficiaries of his extensive treks, including delicious peppers stuffed with chickpea masala, crushed peanuts and the sweetener jaggery, a recipe Pandya got from his mother-in-law and made his own. The peppers’ stems double as handles for lifting the food to one’s lips. “We ask people to eat with their hands, how we grew up eating,” says the chef. Most of the food at Dhamaka is served in the pots or other vessels they’re cooked in, adding to the informality of the evening.
I’d be hard-pressed to recall a finer paneer methi, for which Pandya makes his own velvety cheese from high-fat milk and blends fresh and dried fenugreek, along with fenugreek seeds. Bound with cashew sauce, the dish hums with cumin. Whole trout, reddened with chile paste, is cooked on the grill and brightened with lime juice at the table. The food is delivered by servers who are taught to treat diners as if they were guests in their home, says the chef, whose aim is “fun dining” versus fine dining.
Pandya and a colleague spend up to 10 hours a week sourcing meat and spices from small suppliers in the area. Dine early, then, or reserve ahead, if you hope to sample the whole rabbit, only one of which is supposedly offered a day. Marinated for two days, the feast takes six hours to cook and is presented in a clay pot.
The bar and dining room reflect jugaad, the Hindu notion of a creative way to solve a problem. “There’s art in broken things,” says Pandya. Hence the reclaimed wood throughout the concrete-paved restaurant, and the colorful art, separated like puzzle pieces, on the walls. The chef likes to think of his restaurant as “imperfectly perfect.”
A caveat: Dhamaka requires you to lean in to converse, and ask your server to repeat the specifics of a dish. It’s loud, even early at night. You can’t say the name of the place didn’t warn you.
119 Delancey St. 212-204-8616. dhamaka.nyc. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Dinner entrees $33 to $39.
Laser Wolf Brooklyn
The elevator leading to the rooftop of the Hoxton hotel is guarded like Fort Knox.
Here’s why: Israeli maestro Michael Solomonov opened a branch of his popular Philadelphia skewer house there in May — reason enough for food lovers to pack the place — and the view from the Williamsburg hot spot is a postcard come to life. Seemingly all of Manhattan is the backdrop for Solomonov’s charcoal-grilled feasts and Laser Wolf’s hospitality.
As in a typical Israeli shipudiya, or skewer house, diners choose an entree — fish, meat or vegetables — that is preceded by hummus, house-baked pita and 10 or so cold salads arranged on a big tray. The last, salatim, is so luscious, it almost negates the need for a main course. I could easily fashion a meal from just the platter’s garlicky near-liquid hummus, fine-sliced cabbage and fennel, alive with s’chug, and the refreshing combination of charred pineapple and celery. But the entrees are pretty compelling, too, particularly the barbecue-spiced braised short ribs, so soft you barely need teeth to chew. The lamb and beef for the juicy koobideh is ground in house and seasoned with dill, turmeric and onion.
Everybody raves about the a la carte chicken wings and the french fries, and in this case, everybody is right. Both snacks involve a lot of TLC. The glaze for the dynamite wings begins by adding bits of hot charcoal to a pan of date molasses, which is later strained and hit with harissa and lemon juice. The fries, featuring Kennebec potatoes, are brined, steamed and frozen before they’re sizzled to a golden wisp in hot oil. Terrific on their own, the fries are headier following a dip in Laser Wolf’s tehina ketchup, charged in part with fermented mango.
The restaurant, whose long bar is first come, first served, takes its name from Lazar Wolf, the wealthy butcher in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Pro tip: The best way to reach the restaurant from Manhattan is to take the ferry from the East 34th Street terminal, a bargain $2.75 excursion.
An hour or so in, my pants feel tight. That doesn’t prevent me from making space for brown sugar soft-serve ice cream garnished with cherries and pistachios.
“Everybody dance now!” sing-shouts Martha Wash from the speakers on a night that channeled ’90s hits. She and Solomonov know how to throw a party at the rare restaurant whose food rivals its view.
97 Wythe Ave. 718-215-7150. laserwolfbrooklyn.com. Open for semi-enclosed dining. Entrees, including salatim, $43 to $175 (for dry-aged T-bone).
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
No line outside Chinatown’s oldest source for dim sum? I figure it’s my lucky day and stroll right inside Nom Wah Tea Parlor, where I’m immediately met by a manager with a clipboard. “Forty-five minutes,” he tells me before I can even ask how long the wait might be. He hands me a number and I exit, only to discover that my competition for a table inside is cooling its collective heels at shaded tables in the alley.
Chances are, you’ll face a wait here, too. The holding pattern is worth it. Open on the same block since 1920, Nom Wah Tea Parlor is a time warp wrought from tile floors, lipstick-red booths, a pressed tin ceiling and slender mirrored columns. No carts. Instead, you check off what you want from a list of dishes that are made to order back in the kitchen and brought out in short order.
Salt-and-pepper shrimp are served so hot, you have to wait a minute to sink your teeth into the crackling seafood. Steamed buns the size of baseballs break open to reveal cores of what tastes like pork stew with caramelized onions. Bite-size soup dumplings spurt golden juices; gone in a gulp, they leave the flavor of pork and ginger in their wake. These might be small plates you’ve had before, but they’re executed with finesse. Behold the sheen in the stack of Chinese broccoli, cooked to retain some bite and lashed with oyster sauce. To drink, there’s premium tea from China, but also (yes!) Brooklyn Lager and gruner veltliner from Austria.
Know before you go: “Only cash or Amex,” a server greeted my party.
13 Doyers St. 212-962-6047. nomwah.com. Open for indoor dining. Dim sum selections $3.50 to $15.50.